- This op-ed argues that the phrase “systemic racism” doesn’t go far enough.
This piece originally appeared in The Boston Globe. It is republished here with permission.
In her novella “In Darkness and Confusion,” Ann Petry provides a wrenching fictional account of the 1943 Harlem race riot. The story is told from the perspective of William, a working-class husband and father whose son has been drafted into the Army and sent for training to the no man’s land of rural Georgia. William and his wife, Pink, are worried because they have not heard from Sam for a long time. Through a chance encounter with one of Sam’s friends, who had been stationed at the same camp, William discovers the reason Sam’s letters stopped. He is in prison, sentenced to 20 years of hard labor for shooting the military police who shot him for refusing to move to the back of a segregated bus.
The day after William finds out about his son’s fate, Harlem explodes when a white police officer shoots a Black soldier. William and Pink’s grief about Sam and their pent-up fury from a lifetime of racial assaults propel them to join the rioters. Petry brilliantly illuminates the logic of rioting by revealing her well-drawn characters’ inner lives.
Why is this story, written almost 80 years ago, so relevant to what we face today? In 1943, the armed services had not been desegregated, Brown v. Board of Education had not been decided, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act had not been passed, affirmative action did not exist, and no Black person had ever been elected president. In 2020, all of these markers of racial progress and many more are part of the historical record, yet Minneapolis and the entire country have erupted for the very same reason that Harlem did in 1943: A white police officer cavalierly executed a Black man. The reason America’s pattern of racial terrorism keeps repeating is because the system of white supremacy that spawns the terrorism remains intact.